Last year, I read an article about Maher Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen who was suspected of terrorist ties in 2002. Returning to Canada from a vacation in Tunisia, he was detained at Kennedy International Airport, where he was interrogated by U.S. national-security officers for two weeks before being flown to Syria, where he was tortured for 10 months and forced to sign a confession. He was innocent. And yet U.S. officials remain unapologetic about the incident.
Upon hearing this, I was enraged because somewhere along the line, without my permission, my country decided that it had earned the right to no longer abide by the rules of the good guys. This movie was made for people like me.
Rendition tells the similar story of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born man living in the U.S. who’s abducted by the CIA on suspicion of terrorist ties. Without due process or even informing his American family, CIA official Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) orders “extraordinary rendition,” and Anwar is flown to the Middle East for interrogation. As a CIA analyst, Jake Gyllenhaal is given little to do but observe the torture and quietly struggle with its morality. And there’s a subplot involving the Arab interrogator’s daughter and her relationship with a Muslim extremist, all of which seems disconnected from the main narrative until the end, when a plot twist drives the point home that violence only begets more violence.
I loved every gut-wrenching, frustrating moment of this film, but that’s one of Rendition’s weaknesses. It plays like partisan radio, preaching to the choir. Sure, it’s telling me what I want to hear, but I tried to imagine how the film’s detractors would pick it apart. It’s needlessly manipulative. Instead of giving Anwar an Arab wife, he’s married to blond-haired, blue-eyed American sweetheart Reese Witherspoon. And she’s pregnant. And the stress of this situation is putting her baby at risk. Then there’s Streep, who spouts post-9/11 catch phrases with a cartoonishly villainous snarl. Since her argument for national security is never given a fair chance, why should anyone give Rendition’s argument for morality a fair chance?
I think the humanitarian argument here is strong enough that a more cleverly constructed film wouldn’t have to resort to such cheap tactics to win our sympathies. In fact, a more audacious film might have even had Anwar turn out to be guilty.
After all, vigilante justice isn’t wrong simply because the good guys might accidentally be punished. It’s wrong because its practice makes us the bad guys. And the bad guys deserve to be punished.
Reese Witherspoon, Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep
Directed by Gavin Hood